During the past week, several class actions have been filed against Anheuser-Busch claiming the brewing company watered down its products during the brewing process before it passed them on to the beer-drinking public. The plaintiffs in these cases are individuals who purchased certain Anheuser-Busch products, such as Budweiser and Michelob Ultra, and they allege the company intentionally deceived consumers by overstating the alcohol content of certain products on those products’ labels. The complaints in each of these cases -- which mimic one another and have been filed in federal courts in California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas -- claim that the company’s conduct violates state consumer protection and other laws and ask the court to award class-wide relief to people who purchased any one of a number of Anheuser Busch products. These products include the following brands: Budweiser; Bud Ice; Bud Light Platinum; Michelob; Michelob Ultra; Hurricane High Gravity Lager; King Cobra; Busch Ice; Natural Ice; Black Crown; and Bud Light Lime.
The plaintiffs claim that Anheuser Busch possesses the technology to measure alcohol content with precision but, instead of using it to convey accurate information to consumers, the company used this technology to “shave” the amount of alcohol in its beverages during the brewing process. According to the plaintiffs, Anheuser-Busch uses a brewing process with a “high gravity” approach that keeps the alcohol content (and other things) at specifications that are higher than what the final product ultimately will have, until the last stage of the brewing process when water and carbon dioxide are normally added. It is during this final stage that plaintiffs claim the company waters down its products. The end result of this process, according to the complaints, is that the percentage of alcohol by volume in each can or bottle of beer is less than the can or bottle says it is on the label (although plaintiffs are not clear as to how much less).
The lawsuits allege that it is the alcohol in Anheuser-Busch products that creates the demand for these products and the lowered alcohol content results in a product that is worth less to consumers. The plaintiffs claim that the amount of alcohol in their Anheuser-Busch brands of choice was a consideration when they purchased those brands and they would not have purchased these beers if they had known what their true alcohol content was. The plaintiffs intend to ask the courts to certify classes that include anyone who purchased any one of the brands at issue in a particular state after a certain date (which varies depending on the case). The individuals bringing these cases want the courts not only to require Anheuser-Busch to pay monetary damages but also to require the company to stop engaging in the alleged misconduct and to provide corrective advertising.
Before the plaintiffs receive any such relief, however, they will need to overcome a number of obstacles. As an initial matter, they must convince the courts that the claims of all purchasers are sufficiently similar to be resolved in class actions. Anheuser-Busch should be able to offer several possible reasons why the case cannot go forward on behalf of all purchasers, including that many consumers do not read the labels on beer cans and bottles and do not care what the exact alcohol content of their beer is. In addition, even if one or more of these plaintiffs can convince a court that a class action is appropriate, they would still have to prove their claims on the merits, including showing that Anheuser-Busch actually engaged in the alleged misconduct. Although it’s early, and Anheuser-Busch’s responses to these complaints are not even due yet, one can anticipate that Anheuser-Busch would offer a number of arguments as to why it did not water down its beers in the manner that the lawsuits claim or otherwise act improperly and why the plaintiffs should not receive the relief they seek. We will continue to monitor these cases for future developments.